US plays down first North Korean rocket test under Biden presidency

The Biden administration on Tuesday said North Korea had launched short-range rockets at the weekend, but played down the severity of the threat because the military activity did not breach UN resolutions.

The Washington Post reported that North Korea had fired two short-range missiles, which would mark the first known military provocations from the authoritarian regime since Joe Biden took office in January.

One US official said North Korea had fired a “short-range” system. He declined to provide more details, saying the intelligence was classified, but said the tests did not breach any UN Security Council resolutions.

“We do not believe that it’s in our best interest to hype these things,” the official said. “We would consider those activities part of the normal . . . tense military environment we see on the Korean peninsula.”

The official said it was “common” for North Korea to test various weapons and that the US did not publicly respond each time.

While the US refused to provide more detail about the activity, the situation was unusual in that Seoul and Tokyo, which often respond to provocations, did not reveal that the rocket launches had occurred.

“We don’t want to speak for our partners and allies . . . but I think their posture related to the events of this weekend suggest that they see this the same way that we do,” said a second US official.

The military activity came as the US struggles to engage with North Korea, which has refused to talk with Washington for the past year.

Former president Donald Trump held three face-to-face meetings with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un as part of an effort to denuclearise North Korea. But the high-level diplomacy failed after Kim refused to accept US demands in their second summit in Vietnam in 2019.

Victor Cha, a former White House North Korea adviser, said the North Korean activity was “not severe”. But he said it was a “pretty loud signal that they are not afraid to put pressure on this administration”.

Cha said Kim probably felt compelled to take action after the Biden administration convened several high-level diplomatic engagements to discuss challenges in Asia that include the North Korean threat.

Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, visited Japan and South Korea last week for talks, before he and Jake Sullivan, national security adviser, held a high-level meeting with Chinese officials in Alaska.

“In terms of the tactics, North Korea calibrated it. They knew that with Trump they could test short-range ballistic missiles because he had said that he didn’t care,” Cha said. “With Biden they didn’t know where the line is, but they felt they had to do something”.

The US officials said they were in the final stages of crafting their North Korea policy. Sullivan will meet his Japanese and South Korean counterparts in Washington next week to discuss the strategy.

One official said the US was on its “forward foot” in terms of being prepared to engage with North Korea. But he said the US had “no illusions” about the challenge. The second official said that the recent military activity at the weekend would not result in “closing that door”.

North Korea recently described the efforts by the Biden administration to engage the regime as a “cheap trick”. It said there would be no contact with Washington unless the US “rolls back its hostile policy”.

South Korea declined to comment. South Korea president Moon Jae-in has for the past four years sought closer ties with Kim despite Pyongyang’s rapid advancement in nuclear and missile technology.

As he enters the last year of his presidency, Moon continues to be reluctant to publicly criticise Kim over human rights abuses and weapons development as he seeks to draw the North Korean leader back to the table for nuclear talks and closer engagement with Seoul. 

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter

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